Subcontractors across Northern Colorado say they are having a difficult time finding workers to fill openings at their companies now that construction activity is picking back up. The problem is expected to worsen once homeowners who lost their residences in the High Park Fire begin rebuilding.
As of April, Colorado had added 7,500 construction jobs since mid-2011; the industry was growing at a rate of 4.2 percent over levels from the previous year, according to the Denver branch of the Kansas City Federal Reserve.
Good news for contractors, it would seem, in an industry that lost 59,700 jobs between 2007 and 2009, according to the Fed. The problem today: many of those who lost their jobs moved onto other careers and are no longer available to the companies that would like to hire them. Colorado saw a peak of 170,100 construction jobs in July 2007. As of this May, the state had 118,300 construction jobs, according to the Associated General Contractors of America.
According to the Fed, in the first three months of 2012, both residential and commercial construction spending were up a whopping 50 percent in Colorado, and permits for residential projects were up 38.8 percent from the previous year.
Now, just as companies are landing work again, recruiting is turning out to be problematic.
There is, it appears, a dearth of construction workers, leaving Northern Colorado subcontractors with not enough people to handle the work coming in.
Many of the workers found jobs in the booming oil and gas industry, but that’s not where they all ended up, according to Steve Spanjer, president of Fort Collins-based Spanjer Homes.“Some went back home to Kansas to work on the farm, some went into auto detailing or auto sales, some are selling insurance,” Spanjer said. “There are some who went into oil and gas, but not all of them.” Some workers also went back to school when the recession set in and have now been trained in different careers.
Spanjer also noted that once the High Park Fire is extinguished and it comes time to rebuild the hundreds of homes destroyed by the fire, the construction business will pick up even more, if only temporarily.
One subcontractor feeling the effects of the worker shortage is Gery Lockman, CEO of L&L Acoustical Drywall Contracting. Lockman first began noticing the uptick in jobs in October, but was able to keep up with the demand with a payroll of 30 to 35 workers. Within the last month, though, all of that changed. “All of a sudden, it kind of blindsided me,” he said.
The family-owned, Fort Collins company was soon receiving so much work that it needed to hire, but couldn’t find anyone in the area who wanted a construction job.
Lockman makes use of avenues like Craiglist or newspaper postings to find workers, and ended up hiring a crew from Texas who found his ad online. His staff is now at 45, and he anticipates that he’ll need to hire five to 10 more people. The downside to bringing in workers from out-of-state is the extra expense, Lockman said. Because the workers
he hired from Texas don’t have homes here, he has to put them up in a hotel, a $600 per week expense that is not factored into the price he charges to do a job.
Construction jobs aren’t as desirable as they used to be, Lockman said, for a variety of reasons. Especially among younger generations, the work is seen as low-earning and much less exciting than a job in an up-and coming industry like green energy.
Most of his employees are over 45, creating another, longer-term concern about what kind of shortage will be created when the current crop of workers retire. “The question becomes, ‘Where are my future workers going to come from?’” he said. When the economy was strong, L&L employed as many as 100 people, but pared that number back to 30 in the depths of the recession. L&L Acoustical also runs a drywall supply company, Lockman Drywall Supply, which is feeling the effects of the worker shortage, too.
The manufacturers with which the company deals are also having trouble finding enough workers and are considering rationing beginning in August that would cap the amount of drywall L&L and other companies can purchase. Eighty to 85 percent of L&L’s business is residential, and the company has worked on homes in Rist Canyon and the Glacier View subdivision, both of which have lost homes to the High Park Fire.
Lockman hopes that he can plan ahead well enough to deal with the volume of business expected in the reconstruction of mountain homes.